Every city’s got an underdog side, and in Melbourne, the western suburbs are the runt of the litter. Melbourne’s west is dappled with heavy industry, and spots like Footscray earned a bad rep when they were hit hard by the heroin epidemic of the ’90s. Melburnians from across the Maribyrnong have traditionally been reluctant to cross the bridge. Now, though, wider Melbourne is waking up to the west's greatest strength – the diverse and delicious food scene.
Fellow blogger Kenny Weir and I are two hungry bloodhounds, always on the hunt for what’s new and good in the west. We run two dedicated western suburbs food blogs, Consider the Sauce and Footscray Food Blog, and take great delight in sniffing out everything from Filipino bakeries to Sri Lankan hopper shops. We want to highlight the incredible depth of eating we have at our disposal in the west. To this end, we have created The Westies: Dishes of Distinction, the western suburbs’ first dedicated food awards.
The sheer volume of Vietnamese eateries in the west means that many restaurants specialise in a dish or a regional style. When it comes to entrees in Sunshine, St Albans or surrounds, there’s no need to read from the standard spring roll song sheet. Instead, try banh khot - fluffy, mini coconut pancakes, at Braybrook’s Quan Viet.
In addition to southern Vietnamese fare, the west also boasts a strong showing of northern Vietnamese cuisine. The first of our Westies winners is pork and prawn banh cuon from Sunshine’s Xuan Banh Cuon, who specialise in this northern Vietnamese delicacy. Gossamer-thin rice noodle sheets are made in house and then rolled up with minced pork and tiny prawns to make delicate, delicious parcels.
For more northern Vietnamese goodies, don’t miss the bun cha Ha Noi at Sapa Hills in Footscray – sliced pork belly and pork meatballs marinated in minced shallots and chargrilled till smoky, juicy and tender. Step into Dong Que, also in Footscray, and the dill-scented air is a dead giveaway for its signature dish – firm white fish marinated in turmeric and served piled high with the fragrant herb.
It’s not as well known as our Vietnamese offerings, but there is a rich undercurrent of Balkan and eastern European food in the west. The Polish club in Albion serves home-style Polish fare to the public, including heavenly cabbage pierogis sprinkled with finely diced, crisp onions fried in pork fat. Order at the register and pick up from the kitchen window, where you’ll be handed your plate by a genuine, rosy-cheeked Polish granny.
In this European vein, the second Westies winner is the Macedonian cheese burek at Nada’s Take Away. This unassuming takeaway shop in the Footscray Market food court hawks tradie staples like egg n’ bacon rolls, but there’s a surprise huddled up next to the potato cakes. The friendly owners make the cheese burek themselves, painstakingly folding dollops of smooth ricotta inside swathes of pastry. The resulting street-style snack is served in big, warm wedges. In the west, we love to subvert folks’ expectations, and finding this house-made Macedonian classic next to the dimmies is real westie fun.
The west’s diversity is partly a result of its traditionally lower housing prices, which have encouraged Melbourne’s newest arrivals to settle here. As a result, Footscray and surrounds have become a centre for Melbourne’s newly arrived East African community. Get into the flavours of Ethiopia at Dinknesh Lucy in Footscray, where sprightly owner Mulu Tiruneh makes not only all her rich curries but her injera flat bread as well.
Our third winner hails from Somalia, and we love it for its matter-of-fact name as well as its delightful components. The “Regular” at Ascot Vale’s Safari begins with a complimentary bowl of rich lamb broth, plus a tall glass of something icy – perhaps fresh OJ, or jellybean-flavoured Vimto cordial. The meal then segues into grilled chicken breast marinated in a tangy spice mix, served with crisp salad, sauteed vegies and a mountain of glistening rice, delicately flavoured with stock, cardamom and garlic.
Like something sweet to finish? Make the trip to Sweet India, housed in a Hoppers Crossing industrial park, and take a number from the deli-style dispenser. The weekend crowds concur that this is the spot for Indian sweets, from melt-in-the-mouth “icecream burfi” fudge to more unusual regional offerings like a sweet-savoury chickpea flour cake from Gujurat. If you can handle the sugar rush, head to Marciano’s in the backstreets of Maidstone for statuesque Chilean cakes rippling with meringue, custard and dulce de leche caramel sauce.
Once thought of as downtrodden and slightly dodgy, Melbourne’s west is definitely on its way out of the doghouse. Pack an empty stomach and come on over.
Lauren Wambach is a food writer and blogger.